iOS app Android app

Megan Smolenyak
GET UPDATES FROM Megan Smolenyak
Megan Smolenyak Smolenyak (yes, that's her real name) is a real life history detective who loves to solve mysteries. You might have spotted Megan or her handiwork on Top Chef, Who Do You Think You Are?, Finding Your Roots, Faces of America, Good Morning America, the Today Show, The Early Show, CNN, PBS, BBC and NPR.

She's the author of 6 books, including Hey, America, Your Roots Are Showing and Who Do You Think You Are? (companion to the TV series) and conducts forensic research for the Army, coroners, NCIS and the FBI.

Among her “greatest hits” are:

* Discovering Michelle Obama’s roots (as featured on front page of NYT)

* Celebrity roots as seen on assorted TV shows (e.g., Martha Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Brooke Shields, Cory Booker, Susan Sarandon, Emmitt Smith, Richard Blais, etc.) and in her writings (e.g., Betty White, Katy Perry, Joe Biden, Beyonce, Julia Roberts, Josh Groban, Pink, Prince, Jon Stewart, Bruno Mars, etc.)

* Tracing Barack Obama’s roots to Moneygall, Co. Offaly, Ireland

* Correcting history by revealing the true story of Annie Moore, the first immigrant through Ellis Island (as featured on front page of NYT)

* Providing a decade of forensic consulting to the U.S. Army to locate thousands of family members of soldiers still unaccounted for from WWI, WWII, Korea and Southeast Asia

* Using her sleuthing skills to help coroners and medical examiners locate the next of kin for unclaimed persons

Follow her on Twitter, Facebook,, or HonoringOurAncestors.

Entries by Megan Smolenyak

Photo of Barack Obama's Irish Immigrant 3rd Great-Grandfather, Fulmoth Kearney, Discovered

(0) Comments | Posted December 19, 2014 | 9:36 PM

Family Resemblance? (Image of Fulmoth Kearney used with kind permission of Merlyn White)

It was seven years ago when I identified Fulmoth Kearney of Moneygall, Ireland as the most recent immigrant on the maternal side of Barack Obama's family tree. Inheriting...

Read Post

Fulmoth Kearney, President Obama's Irish Immigrant Ancestor, Gets a Tombstone

(0) Comments | Posted December 18, 2014 | 8:39 PM

Back in 2007, I researched then-candidate Barack Obama's roots and identified one of his third great-grandparents, Fulmoth Kearney of Ireland, as the most recent immigrant on his mother's side of the family. Thanks to a pair of tombstones in Ohio, I was able to pinpoint Moneygall...

Read Post

4 Celebrities Named for 'Who Do You Think You Are?'

(1) Comments | Posted December 16, 2014 | 9:28 AM


It won't be long until genealogy fans and history buffs can get another hit of watching celebrities time travel to their roots. TLC's next season of "Who Do You Think You Are?" begins on February 24th. Celebrities announced to date include Bill Paxton,...

Read Post

Melvina's Descendants, Michelle Obama's Cousins

(3) Comments | Posted October 20, 2014 | 10:32 AM

Back in 2009, I traced the then-new First Lady's family tree back four or five generations on all branches, but of all the ancestors I uncovered, it was a great-great-great-grandmother named...

Read Post

The Most Ellis Island-y Celebrity Ever: Tom Colicchio

(6) Comments | Posted October 13, 2014 | 10:39 AM

Immigrant Snapshot of the Family Tree of Thomas Patrick Colicchio

Six of my eight great-grandparents were immigrants so I thought I had Ellis Island bragging rights. Even though 40 percent of Americans have Ellis Island heritage, I figured there couldn't be many who...

Read Post

5 Things You Didn't Know About Anthony Bourdain's Roots

(13) Comments | Posted October 8, 2014 | 8:05 PM

Like grandfather, like son, like grandson? Pierre M. Bourdain, Pierre Bourdain and Anthony Bourdain

He doesn't know it, but Anthony Bourdain and I have ever-so-lightly crossed paths before. Several years ago, he wrote about a roots-centered episode of Top Chef:

Read Post

Even First Ladies Have to Deal With Red Tape

(0) Comments | Posted September 12, 2014 | 12:38 PM

With the Ken Burns docu-series The Roosevelts: An Intimate History airing shortly on PBS, this seems a good time to share a snippet of their family history. Specifically, the pages that follow are excerpts from Edith Kermit Roosevelt's file regarding a widow's pension for the service of her husband, Theodore...

Read Post

How a TV Show Reminds Us How Cool Libraries Are

(0) Comments | Posted August 26, 2014 | 4:26 PM


Once upon a time, TLC stood for "The Learning Channel," and while that's no longer the case, that hasn't kept the network from sneaking a little book-learning into this season's "Who Do You Think You Are?" Viewers come for the celebrities and stay...

Read Post

Was David Duchovny's Family From Ukraine or Russia?

(8) Comments | Posted July 30, 2014 | 4:50 PM

There's been quite a fuss about a nationalistic, Russian beer commercial David Duchovny made not long ago -- especially given that he recently discovered that his roots are actually in Ukraine. For obvious reasons, this is less than ideal timing. As a genealogist who also has...

Read Post

Bruce Springsteen at Ellis Island

(1) Comments | Posted July 16, 2014 | 9:34 PM

Those who love "The Boss" or are intrigued by family history will appreciate this charming video of Bruce Springsteen accepting the Ellis Island Family Heritage Award with his mother and her two sisters. He speaks of his colorful, immigrant grandparents, of being "a son of Italy, of Ireland, and of Holland," and of his feelings toward immigration in general. His friend, Brian Williams, served as host of the event, and both made mention of the well known, Italian-Irish mating tradition of New...

Read Post

Genealogy on TV: 28 Celebrities and Counting

(5) Comments | Posted June 5, 2014 | 10:47 AM

A pair of Valeries: Valerie Bertinelli tapes for Who Do You Think You Are? in London and Senior Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett, learns about her heritage in Finding Your Roots

If you're...

Read Post

Consider Donating Your War Letters for Memorial Day

(0) Comments | Posted May 22, 2014 | 10:22 AM

letter to Dad in Vietnam

As Memorial Day approaches, our thoughts naturally turn to those who have served in the military over the years and generations. Memorial Day is, of course, about remembering their sacrifices, but there's something else you can do no...

Read Post

Roots Recipe for Tonight Show Host Jimmy Fallon

(0) Comments | Posted February 10, 2014 | 12:14 PM


Not yet forty, Jimmy Fallon already has an impressive history to look back on. Between Saturday Night Live and hosting Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, he's logged more than a decade on air, and is now primed for his take over of The...

Read Post

They Say It's Your Birthday -- But It's Not

(0) Comments | Posted December 31, 2013 | 10:03 AM

Annie Moore with her brothers Anthony (l) and Philip (r) at Ellis Island

A hundred and twenty-two years ago, on Jan. 1, 1892, Ellis Island opened its doors and welcomed its first immigrant, Annie Moore of Ireland. As the first to arrive, Annie was briefly famous making headline...

Read Post

A Chat with Jim Piddock about HBO's Binge-worthy Family Tree

(0) Comments | Posted October 28, 2013 | 9:30 AM

Family Tree outtake of Mr. Pfister, portrayed by Jim Piddock

I'm generally not the kind who watches TV shows more than once, but recently made an exception when I lost myself in the first season of Family Tree (available on DVD with a fun assortment of bonus features on October 29th). Though I followed the series week by week earlier this year during its first airing on HBO, I found myself even more glued to the screen the second time around. This documentary-style, comedy series was conjured up by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock (as it happens, both history buffs) over a lunch spent discussing Guest's dabbling in the world of genealogy.

During a recent chat with Piddock, who co-writes and produces Family Tree with Guest, he explained that they liked the idea of a young, impressionable person searching for who he is, and dreamed up a 30-year-old Londoner named Tom Chadwick, a down-on-his-luck, but amiable fellow portrayed by Chris O'Dowd. O'Dowd was surrounded by a gently wacky cast of characters played by Guest and Piddock themselves, as well as Nina Conti, Tom Bennett, Ed Begley Jr., Michael McKean, Carrie Aizley, Fred Willard, and Amy Seimetz - several of whose names are very familiar to fans of classic Guest films such as Best in Show and A Mighty Wind. Triggered by the inheritance of a box of memorabilia from a great-aunt, Chadwick embarks on a quest to find himself by exploring his family history, a journey that propels him into a series of peculiar encounters around England and across the pond in California. The end result is a show that's simultaneously charming and twisted, and both absurd and believable.

Seeking to learn more about this series I'm jonesing for more of, I peppered Jim Piddock with questions he was kind enough to indulge.

Q: Is the way this was written - with scenes mapped out in detail, but actors left to improvise the dialogue - an approach you've used a lot in the past and why was it used for Family Tree?

A: "All of Chris's films have been done that way. He and Eugene Levy would write the outlines and character backgrounds, and then the actors are given that. They have all this ammunition and then they come on the day and make it their own so that it has a natural feel about it. It's not as if we don't know where we're going. We know exactly where we're going in terms of the scene, but it's how we do it. It's almost like having a google map holiday or journey planned out in detail, but then you let the actors drive the vehicle or take the train or whatever it is. So it's not as if we have massive surprises on our hands. The story is very clearly worked out, but how you get there is fun and sometimes detours will come up that are genuinely innovative for us and not anything we planned. It's a specific kind of actor that can work this way and obviously Chris has built up a troupe over the years in the films and we pulled on that and found a lot of new people, too."

Q: Do you have personal experience working on your own family history and are any of the ancestors discovered in the show based on anyone's actual ancestors?

A: "Well, my brother's done an enormous amount. I haven't. Having a very ordinary sort of upbringing, I discovered in my teens that the generation before my father was all involved in show business, and in episode two of Family Tree, I quite strongly draw from my family background. Even my grandfather's name was Harry and worked in theaters in Brighton, so there was a bit there. I know a certain amount, and bizarrely - about six months after we wrote Family Tree - my brother was left a box of family mementoes and pictures by an aunt he met once before. It was all so bizarre. It was exactly what we'd written. Really strange.

So there's a lot of real stuff, and there's also a lot of myth. I'm just as interested in the family myths, too - whether they're true or not. They're intriguing. I mean the whole thing about my grandfather having worked with Charlie Chaplin in the early days before Chaplin went to America and then being offered a contract and his not taking it because his father said there's no future in show business. I love all this kind of stuff. Whether it's all true or not, I don't know, but it doesn't really matter to me. It's good story."

Q: Did you consult with any genealogists because there's an authenticity there - for instance, the way Tom Chadwick always sees himself in what he believes to be true of his ancestors.

A: "Chris and I met with some genealogists in London, but the idea of Chris O'Dowd always seeing himself in the ancestors was more just a creative decision. We thought it was funny that he was impressionable, and without being ridiculous, we liked that idea that he would always get excited and immediately see that he was either Native American or Jewish or whatever it was. But again, it's a funny concept because we all do that, we all want to believe something, and then, we're either let down or we're sort of excited by it. Again, it's all part of wanting to belong, wanting to find your identity, and so you'll believe anything. It's why fortune tellers are so successful because they tell you things you want to hear. I think Stephen Fry on Who Do You Think You Are? said that genealogy is, I can't remember the exact phrase, but it was something of a form of astrology, and there's a sort of parallel there, except it's based more on fact and astrology is a more speculative science."

Q: Why is your character, Mr. Pfister, always smelling everything?

A: (laughing) "It's partly my own character trait. I had lunch yesterday with a wonderful British actor, Richard E. Grant, and when our food came, he literally bent down and smelled the food in a way that even Mr. Pfister would have been loathe to do. I had heard that this was also a trait of his and we just started laughing because we both do it. I mean I smell lots of things and I think it's funny, it's stupid, and it's completely good when it's a non sequitur. There was one sequence when we improvised where Chris Guest told me I actually smelt four different things, including Chris O'Dowd."

Q: You have a number of shows within the show - knock-off TV series like Move Along, Please. Why is that?

A: "Chris Guest and I are both amused by bad 1970s British sitcoms, so we created a couple of those. Although it has to be said that Move Along, Please was so good in terms of casting that it could probably be done as a sort of camp, retrospective series today. And then the others ones, we wanted to do a sort of parody of The Tudors, the kind of overblown historical drama that's essentially just sex and violence. And then we liked the idea of doing a show where they'd completely run out of Sherlock Holmes ideas so they were doing them in space. So that came from that."

Q: What's up with all the strange inventions - the shoe warmer, flavored flushes, etc.?

A: "That was a character thing we wanted to give the father - that he fancied himself as an inventor and was completely useless. Actually, that is my - it's hard to know what relative it would be - my step-grandmother's second husband - who I met a few times was this guy who kept inventing things. My half-aunt said that when they were children, the lights would always be flickering because the electricity was driven by a windmill. And he called the whole family to a conference in Brighton and sat them down, I think in a hotel room, and said, "I have come up with the invention that will make this family rich for centuries to come," and he said, "Here's a piece of paper and this is a sheet of carbon and you put it between this piece of paper and this other, and look, as I write, it comes through on the other piece of paper." We're talking about the 1950s so there was this horrible silence as they all looked at him and said, "Nigel, that's actually just carbon . . . it's been done." And he said, "What are you talking about?" But he was a man who seriously thought he had come up with this extraordinary thing. Those types of things are interesting and funny to me."

Q: I've said before that Family Tree was made for DVD because it's so layered. There are countless sly details that reward the viewer for paying attention or watching a second time, and I can't wait for the next season.

A: "Thank you. I've always said that Chris's comedy is built for endurance, not speed. His films never did a massive box office immediately, but they grew in reputation and stature by the year so now, people will still quote the films ten, fifteen, twenty years later and remember them when most other films are forgotten. And I do believe that because this series is so detailed, so layered, and so subtle, that people will enjoy multiple viewings as they have Best in Show and other films, and I think it will only grow in...

Read Post

DNA Stories: Did She Marry Her Cousin? (VIDEO)

(4) Comments | Posted September 18, 2013 | 1:58 PM

Though genetic genealogy has been around for more than a decade, the sight of celebrities swabbing their cheeks on TV shows like Who Do You Think You Are? and Finding Your Roots has undoubtedly contributed to its growing popularity. But if you're new to it - and sometimes even if you're not - it can be a little confusing. For that reason, I've been sharing a series of "DNA Stories" videos featuring the experiences of real life people and how they've used DNA testing to tackle their personal history mysteries (see below for links if you've missed them). Well, now it's my turn.

As a Smolenyak who married another Smolenyak (and a professional genealogist to boot), I am constantly asked whether I married my cousin. Check out the video above to see how I used Y-DNA tests to solve this riddle.

A Tale of Two Fathers

Genetic Family Reunion: DNA Reveals Alex Haley's Scottish Roots

A Tale of Two...

Read Post

DNA Stories: A Tale of Two Fathers (VIDEO)

(6) Comments | Posted August 19, 2013 | 10:44 AM

I know that many of my fellow genealogists are hoping that the current season of Who Do You Think You Are? will inject DNA into the mystery-solving mix, but until that happens, here's a story to tide us over. Genetic testing is a tremendous addition to our arsenal of tools to tackle family history riddles, and this is one of my favorite examples of how simple and effective it can be.

Bob Zins grew up believing that the man who raised him wasn't his father, but was that really true? Would DNA testing confirm or disprove the whispered tales? See how he used Y-DNA testing to get an answer long after his maybe-father passed...

Read Post

5 Reasons HBO Needs to Renew Family Tree

(16) Comments | Posted August 8, 2013 | 4:42 PM


HBO is apparently on the fence about renewing Family Tree, the mockumentary series dreamed up by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock. It may be that they're waiting to see how the first season performs in the U.K. where it's now airing on...

Read Post

Genetic Family Reunion: DNA Reveals Alex Haley's Scottish Roots (VIDEO)

(2) Comments | Posted July 26, 2013 | 11:56 AM

Genetic genealogy has been around for more than a dozen years, but has exploded in popularity over the last few. We're remarkably fortunate to live at a time when we can peek into the past by simply swabbing the inside of a cheek or spitting into a tube.

For some, such as adoptees, this is the very recent past, and for others, such as Alex Haley of Roots fame, DNA testing can reveal information from the distant past that the paper trail never could. Though Mr. Haley is no longer with us, his nephew, Chris Haley, shares his passion for genealogy, so was game to swab for history's sake.

Watch as he meets his unexpected Scottish cousin, June Baff Black, for the first time. June, it turns out, learned about genetic testing by watching an episode of the U.K. Who Do You Think You Are? celebrity roots series. She asked for a DNA kit for Christmas, and got more than she bargained...

Read Post

Kelly Clarkson In Tears over Link between Ancestor's Sacrifice and President Obama's Inauguration

(13) Comments | Posted July 15, 2013 | 11:11 AM


When Kelly Clarkson sang the phrase "land where my fathers died" from My Country,'Tis of Thee at President Obama's second inauguration, little did she know that she was paying homage to her own ancestor, Isaiah Rose.

In the

Read Post